Mairi Mhor Nan Oran

Skye Gaelic bard and Highland Land League shero, Mairi Mhor Nan Oran.

Mairi Mhor Nan Oran was many things; a nurse and midwife, a one-time prisoner and most notably a gaelic poet and songstress. It was through this work that she earned her shero status and, due to her body type, the name Mairi Mhor Nan Oran, meaning Big Mary of the Songs.

Mairi Mhor was born in Skeabost, on the Isle of Skye in 1821. She was born Mary MacDonald, into a crofting family. Her early life was characterized by the rural and domestic arts typical of her gender and social class, crofting work and home textile production. In her 27th year she moved to Inverness and married a shoemaker by the name of Isaac MacPherson. Around the age of 50 in 1872, Mairi Mhor, whilst engaged in domestic work, was imprisoned for stealing clothes from her mistress. The charge was widely considered to have been unjust.

After her imprisonment, and the death of Isaac, Mairi moved to Glasgow and gained a certificate in nursing and a diploma in obstetrics. However, her time and treatment whilst in prison had made a lasting impression on Mairi and revealed a talent for poetry and songwriting that had previously lain dormant.

Mairi Mhor’s poetry was contemporary with the Highland-wide struggle over crofters’ land rights and the agitation was a subject with a strong presence in her work. Mairi Mhor’s talent for Gaelic poetry and ability for story telling made her socially and politically significant in Glasgow. She became a focal point amongst the ‘exiled’ highlanders in Glasgow and Greenock, and was present at number of gatherings there. Mairi often took to the platforms drawing sizable crowds for political speakers. In her songs Mairi represented the beauty of the Skye and the strength of its peoples’ character.

Mairi Mhor returned to Skye permanently in 1882. There Mairi Mhor’s work became a galvanizing force in the crofters’ struggle for rights. Mairi vigorously opposed the treatment and disenfranchisement of Skye crofters and wrote songs directed at those she held responsible and the indifference of those unwilling to act. This included a criticism of the Skye clergy;

‘The preachers have so little care

Seeing the ill treatment of my Isle’s folk

And so silent about it in the Pulpit

As if brute beasts were listening to them.’

In addition to criticisms of individuals and privileged groups, Mairi Mhor wrote songs that celebrated the crofters and key events in their fight for land rights. These events included the ‘Battle of the Braes’ in the year of her return to Skye. This was an incident wherein men, women and children, armed mostly with stones fought with a force of police and soldiers sent from Glasgow to evict them.

In the nineteenth century women amounted to a small minority of Gaelic poets. Yet, Mairi Mhor managed to span the social classes with her poetry and songs. Whilst she was a significant influence on the working classes and crofters she also held the acclaim of academics and scholars with whom she also formed strong friendly relationships.

Mairi Mhor’s hero status has not waned with the passing of time. In 2007 she was amongst the names of a number of women commemorated for their political impact at Holyrood. Community groups in recent years have collected stories that still survive in family traditions, these stories include how Skye communities grew excited by her frequent visits, and how when in Glasgow she would deal with hecklers with a robust sense of humour. Finally in 2013 the Island Book Trust published a historical novel of Mairi Mhor’s life , Love and Music Will Endure, demonstrating that there is no sign of a demise of her hero status in the near future.

Written for Sheroes of History by Michael James.

Find out more…


To read a longer piece about Mairi Mhor on the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement’s site, click here.

For more information on The Battle of the Braes, see this BBC video.

The BBC also have a cool comic strip about Mairi Mhor’s life on their BBC Bitesize history page. You can look through it here.

Some of her songs have been recorded and you can listen to them today online, or on CDs which you can buy.


For King and Country – Edward Skinner.  © IWM (Art.IWM ART 6513)

Remembering the Munitionettes of the First World War

On Rememberance Day this week thousands stopped for 2 minutes to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month; commemorating the end of the First World War and remembering the millions who lost their lives in that, and other conflicts since.

During that two minutes silence this year my mind was drawn to remember the women who bravely played their part in the Great War, and those who sadly lost their lives in the process.

This week’s post is a little different, instead of focusing on one named Shero I want to write a about the sheroes who worked in the munitions factories during the First World War, whose names have been forgotten; the Munitionettes. I have recently been able to look into the role these women fulfilled and find out more about what their lives were like.

In 1914 approximately 24% of working age women were already employed, they worked mainly in domestic jobs, as shop assistants, or doing simple work in small factory industries. By the end of the war the number of women who had taken up jobs had grown to approximately 1,600,000 – with over a million of those working in the munitions factories. The employment which women found open to them throughout the war not only increased, but diversified, with women doing less of the traditionally female roles they had before the war and taking their place in more male dominated areas.

The recruitment of women into the munitions factories and other previously male-held positions grew gradually. The shell crisis of 1915 made clear the drastic need for more munitions and work was stepped up at home. An act was passed which allowed factories to employ more women and so the doors began to open for women to enter the munitions workforce en masse.

In 1916 the Government introduced conscription which saw another 2.7 million men leave Britain, on top of the 2.6 million who had volunteered. This left an ever increasing demand for a workforce, which ultimately women filled.

In my research at Coventry’s local History Centre I was able to look through editions of the Coventry Graphic newspaper from 1915-17. The paper focuses heavily on the men: those who were leaving, those returning – often injured, and sadly a weekly rolecall of those who would never return. It’s only towards the end of 1915 that mentions of women taking up absent men’s jobs start to appear:

Clipping from 1915 Coventry Graphic showing women tram conductors.

Clipping from The Coventry Graphic showing women tram conductors.

Clipping from 1915 Coventry Graphic showing postwomen.

Clipping from 1915 Coventry Graphic showing postwomen.

By mid 1916 women were being actively recruited into the munitions factories, by ways such as this gorgeous poster:


Women who went to work in the factories could expect to be working 12 hour days for a 6 day week. They often worked on bonus systems to encourage faster working and productivity. Many factories built temporary accomodation to house the influx of workers and nurseries were set up so that mothers could also join the workforce.

When starting out the women often found a mixed response from their male colleagues. There are stories of deliberate sabotage by men who weren’t keen to share their space with women, but on the whole it seems the men appreciated the need for extra workers.

The Imperial War Museum has a fantastic set of oral histories from those who worked in the munitions factories which give colour & detail to what factory life was like. (The quotes I have used in this piece are gathered from these oral histories.) Harry Smith remembers how the men in his factory reacted to the new female workers:

“Well they weren’t as skilled as the men that’d been brought up with the job, but they did just the job that they were told to do. And there [was] more repetition work then than previously in the years before the war. Well, some didn’t – the older men didn’t like it, but some enjoyed it because they, some went to have a drink at night with them, but not me.”

Women at the Hillman factory in Coventry. From the Coventry Graphic 1915.

Women at the Hillman factory in Coventry. From the Coventry Graphic 1915.


Coventry women at the Hillman factory Coventry, with William Hillman in the centre. From the Coventry Graphic 1915.

To allow for as many women to enter the workforce as swiftly as possible many skilled jobs were broken down into smaller, more simple tasks that the women could learn quickly. This was known as the ‘dilution of labour’. There was some opposition to this, particularly from unions who feared that this diluting, in addition to the lower levels of pay women earned, would lead to fewer jobs for their male members when they returned from the front. There were of course also those who just didn’t like the idea of women leaving the home at all. The Factory Times magazine in 1916 wrote,

“We must get women back into the home as soon as possible. That they ever left is one of the evil results of the war!”

Muntionettes were paid less than half that of male workers, however striking was made illegal and so many found little recourse to address this unequal pay.

Two women in particular who deserve a mention for their efforts to assist female workers and address the pay issue were Mary Macarthur and Margaret Bondfield (featured on Sheroes a few weeks ago) who were the founders of the National Federation of Women Workers.

The War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry agreed with equal pay in principle they said, but believed that due to their “lesser strength and special health problems” (?!) the output of women would not possibly be as great as that of the male workers!

Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 108474)

Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 108474)

Working in the munitions factories came with significant hazards. A now fairly well known phenomenon was the TNT poisoning which turned many women’s skin yellow.

Caroline Rennles worked at the Slade Green Factory in Kent, she remembered the effect of the TNT well:

“Well of course we all had bright yellow faces, you see, ’cos we had no gas masks in those times and all our hair here… The manager used to say, ‘Tuck that hair under!’ you know, and you used to almost look like nuns… So it was all bright ginger, all our front hair, you know. And all our faces were bright yellow – they used to call us canaries.”

The Canary Girls, as they became known, didn’t just suffer with a change in skin colour though; TNT poisoning also meant coughs, chest infections, digestive problems and ultimately could lead to death. It is estimated that around 400 women lost their lives due to TNT poisoning during the war.

However that wasn’t the only risk the munitionettes faced. Many were also exposed to asbestos, some were injured in accidents with the machinery and in addition there was the ever present danger of explosion. Strict rules about dress made sure that no hair clips, brooches, combs or cigarettes – nothing that could cause a spark – were allowed into the factories. Another worker, Kathleen Gilbert remembers,

“You all had to change when you went in. You had to strip and change into other clothes because you weren’t allowed a little tiny bit of metal on you at all, not one hook or eye or anything. And of course they had corsets in those days with wires in them, you see. And you had to finish up with an overall and put your head covering on.”

Workers had to wear dog tags which would be used to identify casualties in the event of an explosion. Sadly there were several big explosions in munitions factories where many workers lost their lives. The biggest of these was at the National Shell Filling Factory in Chilwell in 1918, where 134 died and another 250 were injured.

Despite the dangers women rose to the challenge, learnt new skills and formed a vital part of the overall war effort. By the end of the war it was estimated that around 80% of the weapons being used at the front were made by munitionettes. It’s clear the impact that their service had, as Hal Kerrige a soldier recalled:

“Well, at one stage for every shell that we fired, they fired a dozen. Oh we were overwhelmed, there’s no doubt about that…So they removed all the restrictions about women labour, said, ‘You can employ women wherever you like on whatever you like, whatever they’re capable of doing – put ’em in the shell factories.’ And that’s when we started to get shells and shells and more and more and more shells. And they were a saviour, they really were. Because if they hadn’t removed those restrictions about the employment of women labour, we’d have been in trouble.”

At the end of the war the vast majority women were forced out of the factories, particularly married women who many thought should not be in any type of work. There was a great emphasis on jobs being available for the men returning from the front, to the extent that even some jobs which were traditionally female-held positions were now turned over to men who had returned with injuries.

The Government gave a somewhat token gesture of thanks with the Representation of the People Act of 1918, granting some, but by no means all, women the vote.

Despite this it is easy to see how the attitudes and expectations of people slightly shifted as a result of the amazing work the women did during the war, including perhaps their own ideas about what they were capable of.

The munitionettes played a crucial part in Britain’s efforts during the First World War. When we remember the servicemen who laid down their lives, let’s not forget the sheroes whose names have been forgotten, who remained at home and gave their all, including sometimes their lives.


Find out more…

There are so many fantastic resources where you can find out about the munitionettes!

First have a look at this amazing video which shows many different aspects of workers’ lives.

The quotes in this piece are from a podcast which you can listen to on The Imperial War Museum’s website.

The Striking Women website has some great information about female workers and their rights during the First World War.

On the National Archive site you can look at real documents relating to the women close up.

And there are loads more amazing photos of women in the factories which you can look at in the Imperial War Museum’s collections search (try searching ‘munitions First World War’.)

Sheroes of History at Birmingham Library!

Hi everyone, just a quick post to announce a really exciting event that Sheroes of History will be leading at Birmingham Libarary on 29th November.

This is Sheroes of History’s first ever event, so I’m really excited. It’s part of the 16 Days of Activism, and we’ll be looking at some great activist Sheroes of history! The event is free, but you do need to book a place.

Follow this link to find out more and book a ticket!

If you have any great activist sheroes you think we should feature at the event please get in touch!

Mathilde Hidalgo de Procel

Mathilde Hidalgo de Procel – First in Everything

Ecuador was the first Latin American state to enfranchise women, in 1929.  The pioneer who symbolised women’s striving for emancipation in a cruelly conservative society was Mathilde Hidalgo de Procel.

She was born Mathilde Hidalgo in Loja, Ecuador in 1889 in a family of six children.  Her father died when she was young and her mother was obliged to work as a seamstress to keep the family.  Mathilde attended a convent school, and she was an academic child but her education was soon to stop as senior schools were reserved for boys in Ecuador.

She spoke to her older brother, Antonio, who asked the director of the local secular high school for permission for her to attend.  He did so, and she studied at the Colegio Bernaro Valdivieso, but the local community acted with outrage to the spectacle of a girl becoming educated – mothers stopped their daughters from associating with her and the priest made her stand outside the church at mass.  There was a prescribed distance which she had to stand outside the church – nothing less than two paces outside the church door would do to prevent other girls form being contaminated by Mathilde’s education.

Despite the opposition, she became the first girl in Ecuador to graduate from high school, in 1913.  She went on to study medicine at the University of Cuenca, and became the first woman in Ecuador to qualify as a doctor.

Mathilde practised medicine, and added de Procel to her name when she married the lawyer Fernando Procel.  She now turned her attention to the political rights of women and signed the register of voters.  Her application to vote was queried and referred to the State Council.  She argued that the constitution stated that to be an Ecuadorian citizen and to exercise the right to vote the only requirement was to be 21 years old and able to read and write.  There was no requirement to be male.  The State Council unanimously agreed and in 1924 Mathilde became the first Ecuadorian woman to vote.

She had breached the principle of women voting and opened the way for a new government and a new constitution which would enfranchise women explicitly, on the same basis as men.  In 1929 Ecuador became the first Latin American country where women had the vote, ahead of large, powerful countries like Brazil and Argentina.

Mathilde Hidalgo became Ecuador’s first female candidate and the first elected public administrator, for her home town of Loja, in 1941.  She died in 1974, and a museum has been established in Loja in her memory.


Written for Sheroes of History by Jad Adams www.jadadams.co.uk


Find out more….

Matilde’s story and that of other Latin American women is told in the book ‘Women and the Vote: A World History’, written by this week’s contributor Jad Adams!

There is also a 1981 biography by Jenny Estrada in Spanish titled Mathilde Hidalgo de Procel: A Total Woman.

Have a look at this interactive map which shows when different countries around the world gave the vote to women.


Djamila Bouhired – Algerian Freedom Fighter

*Trigger warning; rape & torture*

Djamila was born in Al-Qasaba neighbourhood in colonial Algeria in 1935 to an Algerian father and a Tunisian mother. Her family was a middle class family and she was the only daughter amongst seven sons.

Djamila started her national struggle against the French colonisation from a very young age. She went to a French school where they were forced to sing the anthem ‘France is our Mother’ whereas Djamila would say instead ‘Algeria is our Mother’, which ended up in her getting punished.

Aged twenty Djamila joined the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) when the revolution broke in 1954, and she was the first to volunteer to plant bombs in roads used by French military occupation. Algerian women played a major role in fighting against the French colonial regime, women were either involved in providing support for the fighters or fought in armed operations.

Djamila was involved in the battle for Algiers which occurred in 1957. Unfortunately, on April 9, 1975 she was arrested by the French occupation, when she was raped and severely tortured as the French military occupation used electro shocks on her wounded leg, her breast and genitalia which resulted in bleeding and amenorrhea. The French militants brutally tortured her hoping that she would reveal information about FLN leader Yasif Saadi, but she did not and for that reason she was sentenced to death.

Her imprisonment drew a lot of regional and international media attention. Many people marched the streets chanting for her release, and presidents such as Jamal Abed Al Nasser called for her freedom. Following that pressure on the colonial French regime, her sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. She was released in 1962 and then married her French lawyer Jacques Vergès, in 1965, and had two children Lias and Maryam. They both worked together on a magazine called Revolution Africaine, which focused on African nationalist movements. The couple separated in 1991 and she currently lives alone in Algeria.

Djamila Bouhired was an important part in the struggle for the freedom of Algeria, and is still a very significant figure that calls for protests to improve legal, social, political and economic situations of women.

She says:

“I am pleased that my life has meaning and a direction that I chose from the very beginning, which is that of the Algerian people’s struggle against colonialism and oppression from foreigners…I cannot express my happiness to be in the maquis better than by briefly taking stock of my positive experiences: Firstly, I became aware of the superiority of our organisation although I already knew that our struggle needed fighters and leaders. I understood that our army encompasses everything and assigns everybody the appropriate role and gives them the necessary responsibility…. Secondly and equally important, I understood that the enormous apparatus that our leaders have rapidly set up rests on solid and proven foundations such as the confidence, devotion, participation and even heroism of our civilian population.”

Written for Sheroes of History by Nof Nasser Eddin, Director of The centre for Transnational Development and Collaboration

Find out more…

There are several films which feature Djamila as a character and examine the Algerian War of Independence.  The 1966 film The Battle of Algiers and 1958 Jamila the Algerian and the documentary film Terror’s Advocate.

There is a longer, and more detailed account of Djamila’s life here.

See powerful photos of the Algerian-French war here and a timeline of the conflict here.


Karolina Widerström – Sweden’s First Female Physician

Karolina Widerström, born in 1856, enjoyed a long and productive career not only as a physician but also as a politician and a champion of women’s rights. Her father, a physiotherapist, encouraged his daughter to follow in his footsteps, which she did. However, Widerström soon realised that she wanted to go into medicine.

Women were given the right to obtain an academic degree in Sweden in 1873, and Widerström began her medical studies in Uppsala in 1879. She received a licentiate degree in medicine from the Karolinska Institute in 1888.

Because the right to study and obtain a degree did not, for women, include the right to possess a government post, the first generation of female physicians usually started private practices; Widerström opened her first practice in 1889.

Karolina wrote in a letter to Dr Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, another feminist physician, that “[w]hen I started, people had been waiting and longing for a female physician, some for many years. So of course there was a bit of a stampede to reach the one who happened to be the first”. Widerström’s surgery was legendarily busy, with long queues of patients.

The ideal for women during the 19th century was to be completely ignorant of sexual matters. Venereal disease was very common, but male physicians tended to keep female patients ignorant of venereal contagion and its source – usually the husband. Not only was Widerström determined to provide education on sexual matters, she was also able to discuss intimate matters that patients were reluctant to speak to a male physician about. For Widerström, education was important – too many women, she argued, lived in ignorance as a result of the demand for chastity.

Widerström wrote a book on sexual health, Kvinnohygien (“Female Hygiene”), which was published in seven editions between 1899 and 1932. Kvinnohygien explained, in simple language, the workings of the female reproductive system, and discussed women’s health in general.

A second part, Kvinnohygien II, was published in 1905, and discussed the symptoms and treatment of venereal diseases, but also raised the issue of prostitution and the regulation of prostitutes. Regulation was common in many European countries in the 19th century, and entailed registering and inspecting prostitutes. Karolina Widerström, unlike most of her male colleagues, recognised the fact that socioeconomic factors pushed women into prostitution. Arguing that there is no supply without demand, she pointed out that prostitution is not a problem created by women, and that subjecting one sex to regulation while the other is free to keep spreading the disease is not only morally and legally questionable but completely inefficient.

Widerström called for equal pay for equal work, and social reforms to support families – decades before these ideas gained wider political recognition. Widerström was instrumental in the process which led to the abolition of regulation, and the introduction of sex education in all Swedish schools. Ever a proponent of education, Widerström argued that “ignorance is not innocence”.

Ellen Key, the Swedish feminist and writer, wrote to her friend Karolina Widerström in 1919: “Thank you for everything since the winter of 1876 – now 43 years ago! You and I could have had grandchildren by now if we had used our time [for that]: Now we have work only. But that is our progeny!”

Written for Sheroes of History by Ingrid Lyberg.

Find out more…

Here is a timeline of events in Swedish women’s history; can you find Karolina’s name?

There are some more photos of Karolina on this website.






Margaret Bondfield

Margaret Bondfield was a leading trade unionist, a camaigner for women’s rights and the first female member of the British Cabinet.

Margaret was born in Somerset in 1873. She came from a big family and was the eleventh child! Her parents were textile workers, and her father was known for his radical political views.

When she was just 14 Margaret left home to go and work in a fabric shop in Hove. While working there she became friends with Louisa Martindale, who was part of the women’s rights movement. Louisa invited Margaret to her house and let her borrow books about working people’s rights and socialism which began to really inspire young Margaret’s mind.

When Margaret moved to London in 1894 she continued to work as a shop assistant. However she found that the conditions for shop workers there were much worse than they had been for her in Brighton. Workers could be expected to work up to 100 hours per week and were often treated very poorly by their bosses.

Margaret began to secretly write about what it was really like for these, mostly female, shop assistants. She used the name ‘Grace Dare’ so that no-one would know it was really her writing. Each month her undercover reports appeared in a magazine called The Shop Assistant. Her findings became part of a report about conditions for shop workers which the Women’s Industrial Council published in 1898.

She was elected to join the Shop Assistants Union District Council, which was the first of many roles she would fulfil in different unions and organisations.

Around this time she met Mary Macarthur, another important figure in the history of unions and women’s rights. They became life long friends and allies in the fight for equal rights for women. In 1906 Margaret and Mary founded the first general union for women, the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW).

Margaret dedicated her life to working for the Unions she was involved with, recruiting shop workers to join the National Union of Shop Assistants and speaking publicly about workers’ rights. She said,

“I had no vocation for wifehood or motherhood, but an urge to serve the Union.”

In 1910 the government invited Margaret to join an Advisory Committee looking at new health insurance laws. She fought for women’s needs and as a result persuaded the government to include benefits for pregnant women in their new bill. Importantly, she also made sure that the law said the benefits received by these women would be their own property (not their husbands.)

By this time people had begun to campaign for votes for women. The most well known suffrage group, the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst, was asking for equal voting rights with men. The problem was, that at this time not even all men were allowed to vote – it depended on how much property you owned, which meant many poorer people, male or female, were not allowed to vote.

Margaret Bondfield felt that she couldn’t agree with the WSPU, and instead joined, and became chairperson, of the Adult Suffrage Society. She believed that everyone, regardless of their gender or status, should be allowed to vote. Because she worked with, and came from, the working class she couldn’t support a new voting bill which would only benefit the middle and upper classes.

Margaret had another disagreement with the main suffragist movements at the start of the First World War. At the outbreak of war the WSPU worked out a deal with the government that meant all the suffragettes who were in prison would be released; in return they would stop their campaigning and put their energy into supporting the war effort.

Margaret however spoke out against the war. She joined with the Women’s Freedom League to form the Women’s Peace Crusade, and throughout the war campaigned for a negotiated peace.

During the First World War the number of women workers increased greatly. As men were told that they had to join the army, female workers were needed to fill their places in jobs at home. However, women were not paid the same as the men who had been doing those jobs. As well as campaigning for peace, Margaret devoted her time to fighting for better pay for women workers during the war. Through the NFWW she argued that they should receive a minimum of £1 per week and that there should be equal pay for equal work.

At the end of the war in 1918 the government introduced a new voting law which allowed some women to vote, but it was only women who were over 30 and owned their own property (or were married to a man who did!) Margaret was not satisfied with this law, calling it ‘mean and inadequate’.

Another thing which happened that year was much better news, Margaret was elected to the Trade Unions Council. Five years later, in 1923, she became chairperson of the council, making her the first ever woman to fulfil the position!

It was also in 1923 that Margaret was elected to parliament. She was one of only three women who became Labour MPs (the other two were Susan Lawrence & Dorothy Jewson.)

The government finally introduced equal voting rights for EVERYONE in 1928. When they did Margaret was overjoyed. She said,

“Once and for all, we shall destroy the artificial barrier in the way of any women who want to get education in politics and who want to come forward and take their full share in the political life of their day”

The next year the Prime Minister, Ramsay McDonald made Margaret his Minister of Labour – this made her the first woman ever to have a seat on the British Cabinet!

She remained in politics for some time. Some of the ideas she supported or put forward were not always popular and eventually she left politics to go her own way.

During the Second World War she led a drive for more women to be on the police force and founded the Women’s Group on Public Welfare. In her investigations for this group she highlighted the real poverty that many inner city children, who had now become evacuees, were living in.

Margaret died in 1953 after a life fully dedicated to creating justice and equality for people from all walks of life, and especially for women.


Find out more…

Have a look online at the National Portrait Gallery, they have some great photos of Margaret.

There are a few fantastic old videos of Margaret and other female MPs at the Pathe website. Have a look here.

You can actually still buy a copy of the report Margaret produced during the Second World War, Our Towns, A Close Up.

Find out more about women and work in the 19th Century on the brilliant Striking Women website, which has loads of interactive resources.